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Trump entered a plea of 'not guilty' on all counts in arraignment

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Earlier, former President Trump appeared in a federal courtroom in Washington, D.C., to face four criminal charges related to the January 6 insurrection. He entered a plea of not guilty on all counts. Now, this arraignment marks the third time he has been indicted just this year, something that no other president, former or current, has ever experienced. And all of this is happening, of course, against the backdrop of the 2024 election during which Trump is once again seeking the Republican nomination. He has called these latest charges, quote, "election interference." And yesterday, he told more than 5 million followers on his social media site, Truth Social, that he just needed one more indictment to ensure he wins the election. Here now to help us understand how Trump the former president and Trump the candidate merge is congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh and White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Hey to both of you.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: I guess we should also say Trump the defendant.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right, Franco, I want to start with you. What are you hearing from Trump world about what Trump's legal strategy will be? Like, will it be all that much different from what we've seen so far with respect to the previous two indictments?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, it's obviously, you know, a different case, and they're laying the groundwork for a defense about free speech. I mean, his lawyer, John Lauro, told us, told NPR, yesterday that Trump is protected by the First Amendment and that the Justice Department is trying to criminalize free speech, in his words. And Trump, I'll just note, is echoing those remarks. He did that today when he was leaving the courtroom. He stopped to talk to some press at the airport. He called it a sad day. Here's more of what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: This was never supposed to happen in America. This is the persecution of the person that's leading by very, very substantial numbers in the Republican primary and leading Biden by a lot. So if you can't beat him, you persecute him, or you prosecute him. We can't let this happen in America.

WALSH: You know, Ailsa, and let me just note that while Trump is leading his Republican rivals by very wide margins, recent polls do show him and Biden, in, you know, hypothetical polls - they're more neck and neck.

CHANG: Interesting. OK, well, Deirdre, you covered the January 6 panel's investigation into former President Trump. That panel probably gave the public the closest look inside the investigation into Trump. So I'm just curious, like, how did the panel's work affect the Justice Department's investigation into the former president? Do you know?

WALSH: I mean, I really think the select committee's investigation and their report really served as a roadmap for the special counsel's investigations. The series of public hearings and recommendations in that report sounded really familiar as I read through the 45-page indictment from special counsel Jack Smith. We saw descriptions of co-conspirators who weren't indicted, but their activities were detailed in the indictment. And they were really sort of, you know - the select committee did a lot of the legwork in terms of showing what they had done in terms of this scheme to create this fake elector scheme. John Eastman, for example, was one of those outside lawyers who figured prominently in the January 6 committee's investigation. And, you know, his activities or descriptions of him really came up through the special counsel's investigation.

I think the things that are new in the special counsel investigation is they had access to people that didn't cooperate with the January 6 committee on the Hill, people like former Vice President Mike Pence. And we learned some new things about, you know, sort of the notes he took and things that were going on behind the scenes where some of his aides cooperated with the committee but not the vice president himself.

CHANG: But let me ask you this, Deirdre. Trump's lawyers are arguing that the special counsel needs to prove that Trump knew he lost the 2020 election. But the January 6 hearings made that point repeatedly - right? - that Trump knew he lost. How did they show that?

WALSH: That narrative was really constant throughout the thread of the more than 10 public hearings, throughout their report, throughout the public statements from the members of the committee, that the people that they talked to - campaign officials, White House officials, people in the states that the White House was dealing with, state election officials - that President Trump was told he lost the election, was told the allegations of voter fraud were false. But he continued to push this effort to overturn the election results anyway.

And the committee did this through witnesses like Cassidy Hutchinson. She was a former aide to former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, and she recounted how she talked to Meadows about the fact that the president had admitted that he lost. Former Attorney General Bill Barr featured prominently also in the January 6 committee where he, you know, went on record saying there he told the president directly in an Oval Office meeting there were - there was no evidence of fraud. So, you know, I think we heard a lot about this. And I think this is going to be a big issue that will factor in an expected trial on the special counsel's charges.

CHANG: Franco, you covered the former president during his very last days in the White House. And this indictment tells the story of what Donald Trump was doing in January and December leading up to January 6, 2021. What have we learned about that particular time period from this indictment?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, Deirdre was talking about the different witnesses that did not testify in the congressional hearings that did testify in this hearing. And she mentioned the former vice president, Mike Pence. I think his testimony was the most revealing in, you know, kind of shedding some more light on what former President Trump was doing. As Deirdre said, he - Pence was keeping contemporaneous notes about his conversations with Trump leading up to the January 6 attack. And the indictment outlines some of the private phone calls that the two had where Trump was, you know, allegedly pressuring Pence to interfere with the results. And very interesting - you know, they included Trump telling Pence that he was, quote, "too honest" when he rejected Trump's false claims that Pence had the power to overturn the vote. So it's been interesting to see how important Pence has been...

CHANG: Yeah.

ORDOÑEZ: ...To shed a light on Trump's actions during that time.

CHANG: I have a feeling that phrase, too honest, is going to come up again and again and again in 2024. Deirdre, turning to you - Trump is the front-runner in the Republican presidential field so far. How have his 2024 rivals reacted to this indictment?

WALSH: I mean, there's been a real split. For the most part, they are echoing his comments, calling it a weaponization, saying that it's proof of a two-tier justice system. They're not taking him on directly at all. Pence actually started to do that and yesterday, interestingly, did talk a little bit about the fact that he thinks that the president is surrounded by people giving him bad legal advice. But the former vice president did say...

CHANG: OK.

WALSH: ...Anyone who subverts the Constitution should not be elected president.

CHANG: That was NPR's Deirdre Walsh and Franco Ordoñez. Thank you so much to both of you.

WALSH: Thank you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
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